Ashley Madison and the howl of the wretched married male

September 10, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

The fallout from the unabashedly silly Ashley Madison hack, the one that purportedly revealed the names and personal information of millions of lonely (or slimy, or heartless, or dishonest, perspective depending) married men who were lured like salivating moths to the site’s flame of tepid sexual fantasy, is a lot of things, but it’s surely one thing more than anything else: It’s just terribly, fascinatingly sad.

By most accounts, it appears the hackers were correct in their initial claims: most of the female accounts on Ashley Madison were fake; The men were cavorting alone. Annalee Newitz over at Gawker helpfully verified this via a detailed breakdown of the data (since updated and corrected to reveal even weirder numbers), calculating that, of the site’s 37 million total accounts, only about 12,000 apparently belonged to actual living, breathing females (the site claimed the number was more like 5.5 million), even fewer of which showed any activity whatsoever. Newitz’s correction takes the data in a new direction: While there might, in fact, be more women on the site than once assumed, one thing is for sure: more than 72,000 of the female accounts belonged to an army of very obnoxious automated fembots – and they did most of the chatting with the boys.

Bottom line: Terrible odds, boys. All those millions of lonely, older, surely mostly white men – politicians, pastors, salesmen, doctors, professions, Republicans and liberals, architects and dentists, this women’s heartless bastard and that woman’s lying scum – were howling their angst into a Void.

Put another way: not only were there millions of men who never had the slightest contact with a real female on Ashley Madison (or, presumably, anywhere else), they likely wouldn’t know what the hell to do if they did, and therefore are likely only on the site to dip the toe of their waning egos into a rather puerile, “Mad Men”-style fantasy of what it might be like to have a hot affair, but not actually follow through.

In other words, these are men for whom merely signing up was probably sufficient thrill, men for whom (apparently) porn is an insufficient balm, men who are, presumably, unable and unappealing enough to figure out how to get their romantic and sexual needs met some other, perhaps healthier, perhaps more honest way.

You have to wonder: Who are these guys? How did Ashley Madison rack up 31 million male accounts? (For the record: after their CEO stepped down, the site just posted a letter claiming that everyone, especially Newitz, is completely wrong about those numbers, that they have lots of women on the site and that all the publicity about the hack has actually helped their subscription rates soar).

So many men, so little actual female participation

So many men, so little actual female participation

(This is, of course, akin to BP claiming that no way did that many millions of gallons of oil spill into the gulf of Mexico, and all those dead birds and destroyed ecosystems are really just pretending to be hurt, and who wants free gas?)

What about the initial, knee-jerk reaction to the hack’s big reveal? That it’s all just more stereotypical evidence that men are slimeballs and cheats, and women are unsuspecting and largely innocent? Hey, believe it if you like. But it’s sort of bunk.

Most studies now indicate the ratio of cheating spouses, AKA “infidelity gap,” is much narrower than in past decades – varying between 21 to 33 percent for married men, compared to between 15 to 19 percent of women – those latter numbers significantly higher than years past, largely due to the increased power and status women are finally enjoying, which translates into a more confidence in having an affair. Getting caught would be less of a threat to her overall survival and well-being, you see.

Does it feel like there should be more to this story? A larger commentary to be found amid the rubble of musty testosterone, something about the true nature of modern love, marriage, sexual frustration, awful couples’ communication, monogamy, relationships gone astray?

Maybe it’s this: Maybe this sad army of despondent dudes is more evidence that we really do have it all wrong about marriage and monogamy. Maybe these ironclad pillars of society – marriage, monogamy, house, kids – really shouldn’t be such stiff cultural norms, the things to which we all must aspire in just the right ways, lest the very fabric of society rend and fail.

Maybe marriage and monogamy are more akin to buying a house – great for some, but absolutely not ideal for most. Possible? The Christian divorce rate would seem to suggest so. As would the number of devastated, heartbroken children of adulterous parents.

Surely you already know? That we as a culture have, after all, been duped, lied to for millennia by the church, by political agendas, by crudely enforced social mores and expectations, by corporations and institutions? Of course you know.

Just ask your grandparents: American life, most believe, is very much a one-size-fits-all endeavor, containing roughly the same ingredients: God, mediocre sex, unprepared marriage, a few kids, crushing debt in the shape of a home, work too hard, don’t ask questions, never delve too deep, suffer it out and die lonely and even more lost than when we came in.

Does that sound too bleak? Probably. And that’s certainly not the case for some. But you cannot deny that the vast majority really do take it as some sort of irrefutable law that love equals marriage, that marriage is the only respectable (and expected) thing to do and that having kids are not merely essential, but a biological imperative, followed, more often than not, by divorce – all of it codified and heavily guilt-ified by the church, by lawyers and oligarchic elite, because power.

Let’s just propose that maybe most of the men on Ashley Madison shouldn’t have been married in the first place (same goes for their wives). Let’s propose that mass adherence to the contrived “rules” around romantic love, monogamy, marriage and family has been way oversold, to the vast detriment to the happiness and enlightenment of millions. Is that too much to suggest?

Let’s conclude that maybe it’s not merely fine, it’s actually healthy and essential to ignore the church, ignore what came before, ignore the failed trappings of the mythological American nuclear family that never really existed anyway, and remix those key ingredients as you deem appropriate for your own life, and partner, and heart. Let’s further suggest that not to do so results in, well, exactly what Ashley Madison revealed: a very big pile of very dumb shame.

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Mark Morford

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